9 Dragons. Michael Connelly. Vision Press. Hatchette Book Group, Inc. Paperback. 2009. $10
$10 for a paperback? I know many people older than I can remember the days of nickel and dime paperbacks. My memory goes back to $1.75 and $1.99 paperbacks. But, $10 for a paperback? I hope Connelly gets about 90% of the revenue. Otherwise, something is awry in the trade paperback industry. Thomas Friedman might argue the “world is flat,” but in the publishing world, New York is still king, which is too bad. In the digital age, why should publishers be anchored to a sole geographic location?
The primary purpose of my book reviews, is of course, to recommend the book or not. However, I also want to impress upon people to pay attention to the geography the author weaves into his or her tale. While reading for pleasure has its rewards with a good story, strong, well-developed characters, and crafty prose, we should not ignore the other elements of a good book. Like Geography.
9 Dragons is the second novel I’ve read by Michael Connelly. Those familiar with Connelly know him mostly for his Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller character portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in the film of the same name. If you pick up 9 Dragons thinking you’ll read a procedure law thriller, you won’t find anything like that in this novel.
Connelly has written far more books with his Los Angeles Police Detective Harry Bosch as the lead character. Bosch is not as flamboyant and brash as Mickey Haller. Bosch is observant, contemplative, yet action-driven. Once he sets his mind in motion to do something, if you’re in his way, you’ll get bull-dozed. He has no patience for laziness, cowardice, and won’t trifle the fool who has information which could put a scumbag behind bars. But, he is human, and as we discover in 9 Dragons, acts impulsively. His impulsiveness, or perhaps “single-mindedness” get people hurt. And killed.
Bosch works in Los Angeles, for the LAPD. A call comes in regarding a shooting death at a liquor store near downtown LA. Fortune Liquors was operated by an Asian couple for the local population of predominantly black working-class residents. Those of us aware of the 1992 LA Riots, also called the “Rodney King Riots,” know where the liquor store is located. The 70th block of South Normandie Avenue is a few blocks from the infamous intersection of Normandie and Florence, the site of the most widely-seen portion of the riots captured by local cameras and seen by viewers around the world.
Certain elements of the liquor store owner’s murder lead Bosch to suspect the shooting death was not a simple robbery. None of the expensive liquor was stolen. Too much cash was left behind. And most of all, the place of the shots, three holes in the center of the man’s chest, like the points of a triangle, suggested organized crime. Not just any organized crime but one of the hardest crime elements to fight. Chinese mafia. Triads.
“The creation of the triads goes back to the 17th century in China. There were one hundred and thirteen monks in the Shaolin monastery. Buddhist monks. Manchu invaders attacked and killed all but five of the monks. Those remaining monks form the secret societies with the goal of overthrowing the invaders. The triads were born.” (46)
Early in 9 Dragons we learn a little historical geography. We have time and place, site and situation. China was invaded and controlled by what would become the Manchu Dynasty. Religion, in the form of Buddhism, is referenced. Later, the triads are compared to the Russian and Italian mafia. When we pay attention to the plot elements we might learn something. Triads are real (WorldCrunch) and the history as spelled out to Bosch, is accurate (Stanford Press).
Bosch’s partner, Ferras, worn-out by a wife, kids, and job stress, simply walked away from the case. The Chinese angle force Bosch to enlist the aid of the Asian Crime Unit. David Chu, detective with the LA Asian Crime Unit (ACU), native Chinese-speaker and life long Los Angeles resident, made Bosch uncomfortable. Bosch likes being in control and having to rely on an interpreter did not suit him. Also patronizing and distrustful of Chu, and irritated by the Asian cultural tendency to close ranks in the face of crime, Bosch and Chu were constantly at odds.
Crime scene analysis and interviews led Bosch and Chu to discover a Triad shakedown had led to Mr. Li’s demise. Protection money was being paid once per week to keep the Triad happy. When Mr. Li was unable to pay an installment, a Triad enforcer took his life, instead.
Some circumstantial evidence led Bosch and Chu to a Triad enforcer, Bo-Jing Chang. Taken into custody, Bo-Jing claim his innocence. But, Bosch was not interested in Chang’s alleged innocence after receiving the most chilling phone call of his life.
The caller indicated he had taken Bosch’s daughter, Madeline, captive. Bosch knew Triads had their tentacles in all aspects of Asian society, perhaps even in the LAPDs own Asian Crime Unit. Maddie lived in Hong Kong with her mother, an executive with a local casino group. Hong Kong literally is the homebase of nearly all Chinese mafia. For Bosch, taking Chang into custody had just made the stakes of his murder investigation murder case personal. Very personal.
Leaving Chang in the hands of Chu and the LAPD, Bosch boarded the first available flight to Hong Kong. He was going to hit the Chinese mafia and get his daughter safe if it killed him.
Connelly has done his geography homework. In the acknowledgements, I suspect Mr. Connelly did some of his own legwork in Hong Kong to bring the geography of the former British colony to life.
“Central Hong Kong is actually an island. But there are other islands surrounding it and across the harbor is Kowloon and an area called the New Territories.” Harry has some experience with Hong Kong, as he has traveled a half-dozen times to visit his daughter.
Once in Hong Kong, Bosch’s hunt for his daughter take him to Wan Chai. Wan Chai is like New York City’s Time Square neighborhood of the 1980’s. Wan Chai never sleeps, and the strip clubs and dance clubs lining Lockhart Road are active around the clock, and anything a person wants can be obtained for a price. While having been to Hong Kong a few times, Harry had not witnessed the seedier side of Hong Kong.
We learn more about the geography of Hong Kong as Bosch probes deeper into the area. Despite his daughter living thousands of miles away, Bosch and Maddie talk on the phone. They talk about her homework, and Bosch admits to little more than a textbook knowledge of the local surroundings. When Hong Kong returned to Republic of China control in 1997, the New Territories along with Hong Kong remained part of the Special Economic Zones (SEZ). In the late 1970s, China opened certain regions and cities along the eastern coast to foreign investment. These special economic zones and open cities were granted special permission to engage foreign capital, investors, and global business. Not initially successful, the Chinese proved pragmatic and modified certain business rules which ultimately made these areas very attractive to companies. Today, Nike, HP, and of course, Apple, contract with factories in these area for the manufacturing of many of today’s most popular products.
Not all areas fair as well, though. Tuen Mun, historical home to Asian pirates, is still home to Asian poor and uneducated populations. And also the Asian criminal organizations of the triads.
Game of Thrones is running rampant on my Twitter feed, and the books have proven to be immensely popular. In a local bookstore, I discovered a collection of maps illustrating the realm of Essos and Westeros, and detailing the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. I do enjoy the depth of imagination and imagery authors and artists invest in bringing such fantasy to life. I’ve made many a fantasy map myself in my day, and have constructed maps to depict Tolkien’s works and early text-based Infocomm games (Suspended).
However, there is a certain satisfaction one gets from being able to touch the same place as a literary figure, to walk the same streets, see the same restaurants, eat a similar bowl of noodles, or drink chickory coffee as a character in a book. The book becomes real, is real, for that moment in time when your memories of events comingle with a real-life experience. A person can fly to Hong Kong, travel to Wan Chai, or, though I don’t recommend doing so, visit Tuen Mun (“Tin Moon”).
I entertain doing precisely this as I read authors works. Did the author do exactly this as they were building their story? If so, how did their story evolve to incorporate the local culture, language, sights and smells? Anyone involved in literature, whether you are simply a consumer of the book, an editor, publisher, agent, want-to-be, new, or seasoned author would want to know these answers, I would think. $10 is a lot to spend on a paperback. Pushing “living content” into a story and making us better, or a little less ignorant, after reading even a work of fiction is not a bad investment for our time and money.
Connelly does weave some twists into his tale of Bosch rescuing his daughter. At times, I feel like I’ve not really read this book, but I’ve seen this book. You have, too, if you seen the movie, Taken. The geography is different, the characters are different, but the over-arching plot is familiar. However, Connelly does a good job of hiding his mechanations. He leads us down a path but we don’t necessarily arrive at the destination we thought we were being guided to. Exactly what a discerning reader should expect.
My rule of thumb is I give an author two books to make the case for their writing ability. Connelly is a good author, with interesting characters, integrates of geography well into his stories.
I do recommend 9 Dragons as a good summer reading novel for the beach or wherever your vacation takes you, or for what spare time you have available.
- The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly (socyberty.com)